By Griffin Edwards ’17
“The Law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its former purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law became the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!
“If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.”
Thus begins French political philosopher Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. Talk about a hook.
September 15-19 is Constitution Week. It’s a patriotic holiday that, oddly enough, celebrates the signing of the US Constitution on September 17, 1787. It lacks the explosive pomp of Independence Day and the stay-home-and-grill attitude of Labor Day. In fact, unless you’re in especially academic or especially patriotic circles, Constitution Week will probably come and go without so much as a firecracker or barbequed hot dog. Perhaps this lack of attention is fitting; after all, scratching a few words on a hemp-paper document is hardly noteworthy. It is not nearly as earth-shattering as declaring political independence.
But it isn’t the shock and awe of the Constitution that make it worthy of a week. Rather, it is its quiet repercussions that continue to echo into our own lives today, two hundred-some years later.
Now, to return to Bastiat: what exactly is this “law” that he’s so worked up about? Why does he feel a moral imperative to preserve its integrity and alert his peers to its violation?
If one continues reading The Law after the opening apostrophe, which is a hard thing to resist, one finds that “the law” of Bastiat is not something instituted by governments; it’s natural, inherent in human life, and a sacred part of society. “The law” is not a social contract. In a word, “the law” is the unifying moral code of non-aggression and personal liberty particular and universal to mankind, even in the absence of government. This line of thought was common, even popular, to him and his almost-contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson and John Locke. In contrast, today we often attribute rights to the government, subconsciously considering them something granted us through the good graces of the state. We occasionally rename these as “privileges” as if to excuse their infringement, and we turn a blind eye when, out of convenience (or perhaps laziness), we witness our rights taken away in the name of security or benevolence. We see our rights as things impossible without the state to uphold them, and maintained only through legislation and social norms.
However, if Bastiat is correct, and rights are natural parts of being human, the Constitution and the ideas it upholds are mammoth in scope. The Constitution ceases to become a dusty old document of a failed political system long since run its course; it becomes a sacred work, something, perhaps, transcending any government. It not only provides rules for citizens, but rules for the government; it seeks to prevent the law from being perverted and turning into something hulking, ugly, and oppressive. It is as much, if not more, for the government as for citizens, a proclamation not only for the idealistic state dreamt by the founding fathers, but a manifesto of what they held dear. It is a thing as philosophical, even theological, as it is political.
The relevance of the Constitution has not been lost in recent years; if anything, it retains its importance even as we move into an age quick to abandon our heritage and move into a postmodern world that has so vastly outgrown our adolescent britches. If we as Americans wish to stand the test of time, we must ensure that the law remains unperverted, and government kept at a distance, as embodied by our Constitution.